Some Suffering Is Necessary. Here’s How to Get Through It.

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by David Shechtman

Viktor Frankl’s most famous work, the book Man’s Search For Meaning, is one of my all-time favorite treatises on life. In it, Frankl details the horrors of his experiences as a trained psychiatrist and prisoner at the Auschwitz concentration camp in German-occupied Poland during World War Two. He also goes on to describe how the experience led him to establish a new school of psychology — in Vienna after the war — called Logotherapy.

For anyone who’s read it, the book is both a riveting account of some of the worst aspects of humanity coupled with the amazing, heroic learnings of a brilliant man. Frankl epitomizes the reality that life can be, with the right approach, viewed as a series of learning experiences — even those experiences that most people would characterize as awful. The wisdom he offers is rich and boundless.

During his account, Frankl talks at length about suffering, something all camp prisoners experienced in spades. Suffering, he believes, is a choice, and the way that people choose to view suffering, both in how they experience it and also how they come away from it.

First off, Frankl is not a masochist. He believes that unnecessary suffering is pointless. If suffering is avoidable, then a rational person should move away from it.

But some suffering is either unavoidable — such as his situation in a concentration camp — or it’s suffering that people freely enter into, such as starting a business or raising a family. It’s odd to think of being an entrepreneur or parent as suffering, but anyone who’s done it will likely agree that it has its moments.

It’s this aspect of necessary suffering that I want to explore.

No one enjoys being tested to their limit. No one. No one likes to be at the end of the line financially or emotionally. And as someone who both is an entrepreneur and works with entrepreneurs, I know that being tested to these limits is common for many people.

And, frankly, just being alive and dealing with others provides endless opportunities for suffering — we all face disappointments, loss, and ultimately death.

So, in these moments of necessary and unavoidable suffering, how do we handle it? How do we navigate through the challenges? How do we do our best?

Purpose, say Frankl. He says:

“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

Those with purpose transform suffering into meaning, which is something that people can endure. It’s why people starting a business must be driven by more than short-term gain; they must be driven by why they’re doing what they’re doing.

It’s why people starting a family must be driven by more than fun and enjoyment in the moment; they must be driven by the long-term contributions they are making.

The choice to find meaning in suffering is one of our greatest opportunities. This requires courage. This requires fortitude. This requires endurance.

Think about your current situation. What’s causing you suffering? If it’s avoidable, move on. You don’t need to endure pointless suffering.

But if it’s unavoidable or necessary to your life, what meaning can you apply to it?

Try this template:

  • What’s causing me anguish?
  • Why am I continuing to deal with it?
  • What will successfully enduring it provide me?
  • What’s my greatest learning from these experiences?

It’s noble to endure worthy suffering. Some of the greatest gifts people have given the world come from mighty struggle. Many of our greatest technological inventions were labors of love that came after years or decades of failure. Many of the greatest advancements in human rights came from the fidelity to the principle that countless leaders showed in the face of difficulty.

Never underestimate what a committed person can do. Friedrich Nietzsche’s quote instructs us that, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”